This is a call to action.
It is no secret that the media industry — print, digital, audio, photo/video, all of it — is undergoing a rapid transformation, and we are struggling to keep up. Over the last several years, newsrooms across the country have been hemorrhaging resources and talent. Layoffs and departures are becoming unfortunately common. This year alone, hundreds of jobs have been cut at major media companies such as VICE, Buzzfeed and McClatchy, to name just a few.
As news outlets weather the storm, priorities shift, resources are reallocated, and journalists are spread thinner and thinner. This so often — and so detrimentally — means cutting coverage of the arts.
Recognizing this shift, the Poynter Institute held its inaugural “How to Cover the Arts on Any Beat” workshop in May. Thirty reporters and editors from across the country (including myself) convened at Poynter with a shared mission: to preserve, revitalize and advance arts journalism. Our ranks included journalists from Southern California to upstate New York, from Montana to Mississippi to Oklahoma to Florida.
Upon our arrival, Tom Huang, assistant managing editor at the Dallas Morning News and a Poynter editing fellow, greeted the group with a pragmatic assessment of the current state of arts coverage in 2019.
“This is a fight,” Huang told us, “and I’m enlisting you in this fight.” He cited his own newsroom’s recent layoffs: In January, the Morning News laid off more than 40 employees, including several arts journalists.
Over two days at Poynter, a slate of seasoned journalists emphasized the impact of arts reporting, shared techniques for finding good stories, and teased out the relationship between the arts and other beats.
A story about street art, for example, is also a metro or crime story: How do lawmakers and law enforcement officials determine the difference between street art and vandalism? It’s a business story: How are local businesses reacting to street art? When does street art become profitable? Given the circumstances, a story about street art could have a transportation angle or a health angle or an education angle — it’s a matter of connecting the dots, which also offers many opportunities for rich, experiential narratives.
“It’s easy to get swept up in the PR speech and get bogged down in the details,” said Deborah Vankin, the Los Angeles Times’ arts reporter and an instructor at the workshop. “Just be in the moment.”
Despite the pressing need for strong metro and political journalism in today’s tumultuous 24-hour news cycle, arts and culture coverage remains as vital as ever. The arts are not niche or frivolous — they are thriving. According to Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the arts and arts education, the production of arts and cultural goods in the United States added $804 billion to the economy in 2016. And the vast majority of Americans believe the arts unify communities, improve individual well-being and healthcare, and have widespread social impact.
Newsrooms need a diverse range of perspectives to effectively tell honest, inclusive stories, and consumers need a healthy news diet with balanced local coverage. This unquestionably means creating space for the arts. It means recognizing the value in a community’s interests, voices, and talents, and, on a more pragmatic level, it means putting greater stock in an industry with massive social, economic, political and cultural implications.
The workshop culminated in a dinner and conversation event, where journalists, sponsors and community arts leaders gathered to speak about the need for thoughtful, responsible and thorough local arts coverage. Michael Francis, the conductor and chair of The Florida Orchestra, argued that the arts are an antidote to negativity in daily news headlines, and effective coverage fosters empathy for creators and community among audiences.
“We have to see it as a duty for journalists to cover the arts,” Francis said. “If not, we’ll get stuck in the ether as individuals.”
Interested in learning more? Poynter is condensing the learning objectives from this workshop into a free, one-hour webinar on Sept. 10. Enroll now in How to Cover the Arts on Any Beat.